Archive for November 16th, 2012

November 16, 2012

Grammar, whole language method, experimenting on students, Mad Libs, improving SAT scores

by Grace

Jessica Nevitt is a middle school English teacher who found her own whole-language education left her with a shaky understanding of grammar, a problem that became apparent when she took her SAT test.  Now she is trying to make grammar instruction more engaging for her students by using Mad Libs.

… Grammar is a subject that I have struggled mightily with, as a student and a teacher.

My elementary school experience made me a product of the “whole language” movement. My teachers emphasized the importance of reading and daily journal writing, which in turn, translated into a grasping of the English language, which was organic and boundless.

The rote memorization of grammar rules through charts and workbooks, a hallmark of more traditional forms of grammar education, was seen as archaic and even inhumane.

Because I was both an avid reader and writer, the whole-language approach allowed me to understand grammar in context, without forcing me to spend countless hours memorizing charts and squelching my creativity. Although this approach seemed successful, it was not until years later that I realized something was missing.

During my first attempt at the SAT exam, I nearly passed out when I encountered the then-recently developed “writing” section. The questions asked me to select, in multiple-choice style, the grammatically correct version of a given sentence.

I used my intuition, based on years of whole-language reading and writing experience, to guess at the correct answer, and managed to squeak by. But it became clear at that moment just how clueless I was about grammar.

When she found her own students struggling with “dangling modifiers, participial phrases, subjects and predicates”, she decided to supplement traditional grammar instruction with Mad Libs.

Mad Libs — the popular children’s word game that requires players to fill in verbs, adjectives or other words to tell a story — is perhaps the single greatest grammar tool I have used to engage my students.

With the first few Mad Libs that we completed, the students had fun coming up with “silly” words that fit the part of speech required. However, as they gained a greater mastery of the parts of speech, we began to discuss the nuances of word choice and the incorporation of more sophisticated adjectives and verbs. Thus, grammar became a gateway for the teaching of writing.

Ultimately, the end goal of this exercise is to have students create their own Mad Libs. Students will have to form their own sentences with blanks, leaving out a particular part of speech. By doing this, students will not only gain a better understanding of the different roles that words can play, but also gain an understanding of the relationship between the parts of speech and the structure of a sentence.

Apparently Mad Libs is quite popular as a teaching method, as I learned when I Googled mad libs grammar worksheets. I’m sure that teachers find it engaging, but I have a lingering doubt about its effectiveness.  While I realize that students must be engaged to learn, too often I hear educators stress the importance of “engaging” students over the importance of actual learning.  My sense of uneasiness is amplified when teachers like Nevitt write about how our school children are used as guinea pigs in the classroom.

I am lucky to work at a school that allows me to experiment with different methods of grammar education …

This reminds me.

Schools are not required to obtain permission from parents or undergo IRB review in order to conduct research using their students as human subjects.

All that being said, based on years of research the National Council of Teachers of English recommends against teaching grammar in isolation.

… ample evidence from 50 years of research has shown the teaching of grammar in isolation does not lead to improvement in students’ speaking and writing, and that in fact, it hinders development of students’ oral and written language….

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.

I think the optimal situation would be for schools to use lots of grade-level reading and writing along with explicit grammar instruction.  For most students, that combination would probably be the best.


Well, this was a rambling post covering several topics.  The main point I’d like to emphasize:

Learn grammar.  It will help your SAT score.

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